Power, Change & Practice

By Sharon Strand Ellison

Introduction

In the traditional War Model for communication, showing vulnerability is seen as a weakness, so people often tend to hide things they see as weakness in themselves, even deny that they exist.


How can we grow up in a world rife with abuses of power and not manifest some of them ourselves?


The essence of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication involves being more open about both our strengths and weaknesses — willing to show our vulnerability — as well as being more direct and honest with others. The impact is that we can recognize the common bond in our humanity and have the ability to gain insight and maturity more rapidly. This non-defensive mindset fosters a kind of flexible strength rather than defensive posturing, compassion rather than judgement.

In this article, I use three stories about my own process of gaining insight and creating lasting changes in my life. I use the stories as a foundation for outlining steps for (1) learning to conceptualize and use power differently, (2) changing attitudes and behaviors more rapidly, and (3) practicing the change we seek to solidify. You're welcome to read all three together, or each independently.


Using Power Differently

Story 1: Attitudes about Power — Trying to Get Control Over a Dead Chicken

One day, shortly after my ex-husband and I separated and the kids were with him for the weekend, I was cooking dinner just for myself. It was long ago, before fried chicken was identified as being unhealthy. I started by putting some beaten egg in a bowl into which I intended to dip the chicken. Unfortunately, I'd used a bowl that was narrow at the bottom and I couldn't get the chicken breast down into the egg. I got angry at it. I pushed and shoved and pushed some more. The more I tried to get that chicken breast down into the egg, the angrier I got. Honestly, before I was done, all I wanted to do was throw the bowl, egg and all, at the wall. Not useful, since it was my last egg. In a separate tangent my anger expressed itself with a desire to take that chicken, with whatever smattering of egg was on it and stomp it into the ground. Not a productive act — to stomp on a dead chicken.

At some point, I thought to myself, "Wow. I'm trying to control something that I can't control and it is making me so angry. Suddenly, I could see how a person who didn't know how to control her or his anger — unlike me, of course — could hit or beat a loved one. All it would take is the compulsion to try to control someone who refused to be controlled; the ensuing frustration could erupt into an anger that wanted to smash something.

While this should have been obvious to me already, it became one of those aha moments when I understood on a very personal level what needing to control others can do to us. Yet our predominent concepts of power involve "getting" other people to do what we want. In the last chaper of my book I talk about Bernard Loomer's definition of "Power Over" versus "Power Within." In the first case power is something we wield over others. In essence, one person has the power and uses it against the other, who lacks power. In the second, it is something we use only to guide our own attitudes and behaviors.

In combat, there is a winner and a loser. The loser falls victim to the winner. In what I refer to as the War Model for communication, the "Power Over" model is pervasive. We are constantly trying to get others to do what we want, even if it is only to listen to us — which often really means we want them to agree with us. When we fail to get the other person to do what we want, we actually feel like a victim. "You never listen to me," which is to say that you are somehow hurting me.

In some strange way, I was feeling victimized by that dead piece of chicken because it wouldn't do what I wanted. The simple task of pouring the egg into another bowl never even occurred to me. While we certainly can and should set clear limits about what we're willing or not willing to do depending on how someone else treats us, the first step in creating change is to alter how we think about power. This means not trying to control someone or something else and only focus on what we can change ourselves. It also means not letting someone else dominate us. By maintaining a kind of power where we control our own choices without being controllled by others or trying to control them, we'll avoid feeling like a victim and have far more capacity to become the person we would like to be. As my mother said, "You can't change other people or circumstances, but you might be surprised at what happens to both if you change yourself."


Making Changes One Step at a Time

Story 2: Organizational Skills — A Lesson from How Chidren Learn

When I was in my 20’s—a wife and mother to my baby girl, Ami—I was extremely disorganized.But because I had the housekeeping skills my mother had taught me, I occasionally cleaned thoroughly, with the resulting TV commercial sparkle throughout my home.

However, the level of daily chaos impacted my life greatly; I felt immobilized, overwhelmed and often depressed by the mess. Growing up, I had seen being organized as routine and dull — as actually inhibiting my freedom. As I examined my own attitudes as an adult, I began to realize that it was disorganization that was entrapping me. I decided I wanted to change. I wanted to be organized, but had no real clue how to become consistently organized.

One day, while watching Ami, it occurred to me that children don’t learn to dress and undress all at once. They don’t learn to tie and untie their shoes, button and unbutton their clothes all in the same day. They simply learn one skill at a time, then practice it until it is so natural that they can do it without even thinking about it.

With this in mind, I decided to develop one habit at a time in my quest for organization. I picked one room, the kitchen, and one job, putting the dishes in the sink immediately after each meal. My chosen task was only to put them in the sink. The goal was not even to rinse the dishes, much less wash them. Just like learning to button a blouse doesn't mean getting completely dressed. It's an isolated task.

Although it retrospect it made sense, I was quite surprised to discover that once I got the dishes into the kitchen — before the food had petrified on them — it was quite easy to rinse them. And, once rinsed, it was just as easy to put them into the dishwasher. One small step led naturally to the next. But I didn’t “have to” do it; my only goal was to put them in the sink. The kitchen was the first room in the house I wanted to focus on. I decided not to worry about any other room until each task in keeping the kitchen clean became a habit as automatic as tying my shoelaces.

Over the course of several years, I picked one room at a time, and then within that room, picked one small task at a time. Throughout my life, I have continued, and still continue, to become more organized in every area of my life. If, when we were babies, we knew how many millions of steps we'd take in our lifetime, we might never stand up and take that first step. If, as adults, we can remember the joy and pride we had as a tiny child with each new step, we can acommplish more than we might ever imagine.

As I learned, I not only became more organized, I virtually eliminated a tendency to become incapacitated with overwhelm and depression. Years later, I finally sorted out the mess in my office, including my paper clutter and, ultimately, my writing. My own tipping point might not have occurred, nor my book been published, had I not started clearing my dining room table and putting the dishes in the sink.


Creating a Practice for Solidifying Change

Story 3: Angry Criticism — Simple Practice Steps for Change

Step One: Selecting a situation that involves a repeated expression of an unwanted attitude or behavior and/or an example of a recurring conflict in our lives.

Background Regarding the Recurring Conflict: I came from a family culture where talking, interrupting, arguing, using sarcastic humor, analyzing, criticizing, apologizing, saying “I love you” could be part of any mealtime conversation. We saw it as lively, even fun. While I still love rather raucus humor and can carry on three conversations at once, I was not conscious of the degree to which my family's humor was infused with criticism. My tendency to analyze in a way that carries a critical tone was deeply ingrained, but largely unconscious. I saw it as being honest; after all, I was just giving my own opinion.

My partner Monza came from a very diferent family culture — you might even say at the opposite end of the continuum. People in her family were very kind to each other, to the point of avoiding conflict. My reoccuring issue is that I often felt justified when I expressed angry criticism to Monza. I saw my viewpoint as logical and, therefore, “right.”

A Specific Example of the Reoccuring Conflict: One such recurring conflict came up when we purchased cell phones. The idea was to be able to keep in touch while traveling, shopping, or in case of emergency. Consistently, I would call Monza on her way to the grocery store, and instantly hear her phone ring in the other room. When she returned, I'd ask, angrily, “How am I going to remind you that we need half-and-half if you don’t take your phone?” My belief about the purpose of the phone served to justify my anger. “I forgot,” she’d say. I’d continue, “How many times do I have to remind you? What did we buy the phone for anyway?” Or, she’d go on a trip, I’d call her, and the phone would be off. When she would tell me later, “I just wanted to drive and listen to my music,” it did nothing to ease my frustration..


People often ask, “How do I get past my anger?” My response is to say that much of what we’re defining as pure anger is, in actuality, our drive to control others and the subsequent frustration we experience at not succeeding.

When we feel justified, we see the other person as the one causing the problem, and we don’t seek to understand their experience or examine our own accountability.


Step Two: Investigating how we might be misusing power ourselves in the recurring conflict.

If we view our own behavior independently, without seeing it as our response to what the other person did, we may glimpse it in a new light. How did my behavior appear if I didn’t use Monza’s actions to justify it? Well, plain and simple, it seemed critical and angry. Harsh. How was I using power? I wanted to control what she did with her cell phone; I wanted to “make her” take it with her and turn it on. I wanted to be able to reach her at any given moment.

This line of self-examination brought up a number of other situations where, based on my analysis of a situation, I got angry and then later realized I had been wrong, or didn’t have all the details, and then owed Monza an apology. I decided my own behavior bordered on being abusive. It was an incredibly jarring realization.


Step Three: Pick one single, simple change you can commit to whenever that specific type of incident occurs, and then practice it consistently.

My Own “Simple Practice”: I decided that whenever I felt that kind of critical anger begin to erupt, I would simply not express it. Period.

I didn’t plan out what to do next. I just decided to hold the anger in and say nothing until it went away. Feeling this brand of anger was a red flag, signaling that I was about to use power in old, destructive ways. At the same time,II want to say clearly that I think anger can be legitimate and healthy.

In this particular case, I was working to change a pattern of destructive ange r— punitive, hurtful, controlling. At first it seemed almost impossible. I’d think of something critical to say, for example, when Monza went grocery shopping without her cell phone. Then I’d stop myself and feel a brick wall rise in front of me. I’d turn another direction, think of the next thing I could say, realize it came from the same place, and feel another wall rise, turning again, and again, until I was standing in a chimney of brick with nowhere to go. I had to stay there until I no longer felt “justified” in expressing my anger in a way that, I now see, was full of righteous superiority. My red flag was the tone: critical, judgmental, self-righteous.

I decided to hold silence anytime I felt critical anger. However, I could have practiced holding silence with my anger only about our cell phone scenario. Of course, I failed to catch it in time and/or stop myself more often in the beginning. However, I became much more aware of how often I made even small critical remarks, in passing. I became uncomfortablly aware of the frequency of a tone I didn't like. But by focusing on my own identified misuse of power and doing one simple practice — making a consistent effort to refuse to say my criticism aloud — I more rapidly increased my consciousness and my rate of success.


Conclusion of the Story: From Simple Steps to Quantum Leaps

I was flying home, very ill, from a conference and I had called Monza ahead of time to request that she be sure to keep her cell phone with her. I wanted to be able to let her know of any schedule changes and to be able to find her quickly at the baggage claim so I wouldn’t have to wait outside in the cold.

My plane arrived early; I called her cell. No answer. By the time she was supposed to pick me up, she still wasn’t there. I was furious. I saw my red flag go up and started talking to myself, “It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t have her phone; it doesn’t justify this kind of anger.” I struggled. It was so hard. By the time she arrived, I was contained, but had not completely released the harshness I felt and was feeling distant.

“Are you all right?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. Containment. I didn’t trust myself to even tell her the plane had been early. “How are you?” I asked, with tentative warmth.

“Well, I think I’m coming down with a cold myself, but I knew I had to leave tomorrow for my speech in Minnesota. I was worried that you’re so sick, so I made a big pot of soup and got you food you love that will be easy to fix. All we have to do is get you home and to bed.” She turned and smiled at me with the gentle tenderness she brings to the world. It cracked my heart open; the anger washed away.

Horror set in. What if I had leveled her with my anger? How could she have recovered—even if I had apologized when I found out what she’d been doing for me? In that moment, I felt a change deep inside of myself. I could feel the damage my angry criticism does to her heart. I can still feel it.

My “simple practice” of holding silence when I felt the rise of controlling, punitive anger moved me to the edge of a quantum leap. I had shifted from seeing my critiicism as justified it to seeing as unwarranted. I had been trying to control it, but had not fully given up the belief that it was legitimate. Now, I knew it wasn’t — ever. Even if she forgets her cell phone which, as it turns out, she did have with her that day, but for some reason it wasn't working. Since that moment, when I start to feel that kind of "reg flag" criticsm, most of the time I don’t feel trapped in the chimney, I remember Monza’s tenderness, and I am highly motivated not to damage it.


I shifted from seeing my anger as justified to feeling its full impact on the other person.


Applying This Process to Your Own Life

If you’d like to use this process in your own life and start a “Simple Practice” to change an attitude or behavior that is grounded in old ways of using power, you can begin by asking yourself the following two questions:

One: What single issue do I want to highlight where I still use power to control or manipulate another person, to avoid or hide, or … ?

Two: With regard to that issue, what single, simple behavior do I want to focus on to initiate the change?

A Few Examples to Prompt Your Thinking:

At Work: gossiping ; being abrupt; making excuses for not finishing your part of a project on time; being closed to other people’s ideas

At Home: Interrupting your partner a lot; setting limits in a harsh tone with your child(ren); withdrawing when you are angry

Small change and simple practice—a recipe for success

It’s essential, I believe, not to choose a solution designed to eliminate the problem in one step. Saying, “I’m not going to be abrupt anymore” is about as useful and realistic as saying, “Now I’m going to keep my house clean all the time.” Attempting a step that’s too big is a prescription for failure. Some examples of small changes:

1. Naming the issue anytime you notice it, saying perhaps, “I think I was a little abrupt when I just spoke to you.” Or, "I just interrupted you."

2. Taking a breath before speaking to help you slow down, or

3. Remembering one thing you appreciate about the person when you are irritated or one thing you know you do to irritate that person as a way to shift energy.

4. Replacing one behavior with another. I replaced expressing a criticism with holding silence.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that small changes can bring us to what he calls the tipping point where larger, deeper shifts happen spontaneously. To accomplish this goal, we can simple pick one issue, then change one piece of our usual attitude or behavior so that we use our power to be more accountable, regardless of what the other person does. Doing so, we can transform relationships as sytematically as I learned to clean my house, and then find the unexpected magic in the quantum leaps that follow.


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Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is a trademarked name. © 1994-2016 Sharon Strand Ellison

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